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Review: “Roger Dodger” (2002)

People who think they have any part of life — money, sex, parenthood — figured out are twice as clueless as the rest of us. Which means that Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott) is in for a ruder awakening than the average smug bastard because he’s so self-assured that he takes on a pupil: his nerdy teen nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) as a pupil. Roger will spread his delusion to the next generation. This is the sort of familiar movie predicament that has two possible outcomes: Student absorbs the lesson and surpasses the teacher, or teacher learns something unexpected from the student.

The breezy pace and bitterly funny, vivid dialogue, though, prevent Dylan Kidd’s “Roger Dodger” from seeming that stale and predictable. The film also has Scott, an actor not usually given particularly substantial roles. Given the strength of his brutally frank, acerbic performance here, it’s hard to explain why he’s not better known — or, at the very least, a shoe-in to play more characters like Roger Swanson. Scott is every millimeter the caustic cynic, a Manhattan copywriter with a somewhat sadistic approach to his career. “You can’t sell a product without first making people feel bad,” he contends, insisting “it’s a substitution game.” This is how he approaches his love life, too. But Roger’s bravado backfires when his lover Joyce (Isabella Rossellini) — who’s also his boss — dumps him. Roger can’t quite accept that his tactics could be flawed, can’t quite accept that he’s hoodwinked himself, so he crashes a work function and confronts Joyce. Her rebuff is as succinct as it is chilly. When Roger’s 16-year-old nephew shows up at his office unannounced, Roger sees a prime opportunity to channel (misdirect, really) his frustration and exact an odd sort of revenge. Nick, a virgin of the never-been-kissed ilk, proves to be the perfect blank canvas: thoroughly naïve and eager. He’s perfectly happy to let Roger take him on a tour of Manhattan’s bars, which, after 3 a.m., all start to look the same.

Bar-hopping and one short-lived jaunt to a strip club ultimately amount to the sum total of “action” in “Roger Dodger.” But the lack of action is no problem because action merely would detract from Kidd’s script, which crackles with stinging one-liners and prickly, fast-paced banter. (The script on its own would make for quite a lively read.) “Roger Dodger” is one of those uncommon films where the flow of words — because Roger never stops talking, nor do we want him to — is enough to keep the atmosphere lively and the momentum speedy. Pay close attention to Scott’s terrific opening monologue, a comic and telling introduction to a man whose speeches are so entertaining his listeners don’t see the catastrophe he’s leading them to. Roger is the modern (and male) equivalent of a siren, using his words to enchant and then destroy. Bitter humor is a requirement for the part, but Scott brings something more to it. He locates a core of rage and pain that Roger’s protecting, which makes him seem less villainous even though he’s clearly manipulating (not to mention misleading) the well-intentioned Nick. (Interesting tidbit: Eisenberg essentially reprised this role for 2009’s “Solitary Man.”) Eisenberg has a gift for seeming as raw and impressionable as a high schooler — despite the fact that he was nearly 20 during filming.

For a male-centric film, “Roger Dodger” also has a trio of strong female performances, with two of them coming out of nowhere (“Flashdance” and “Showgirls” ring any bells?). Rossellini, as a strong-willed, matter-of-fact careerwoman, is the stressor that pushes Roger over the edge, and she more than matches Scott’s cynicism. She cannot be snared in his webs of words. Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley register as more than disposable playthings as Sophie and Andrea, who tag along on Roger and Nick’s escapades because they find Nick’s sincerity likable. In a way, he takes them back to the days of sweetly nervous first kisses, not sleazy pickup lines and grabby hands in ill-lit bars. They want to preserve that innocence and sense — there’s that female intuition Roger can’t pin down — Roger’s out to destroy it. The magic of “Roger Dodger,” though, is that even Roger can’t be pegged that easily.

Grade: A

Review: “In the Soup” (1992)

Most all true Steve Buscemi fans would be hard-pressed to explain the reasons for their infatuation with this unassuming actor. His sparkling personality? Buscemi isn’t likely to win any “life of the party” awards in his lifetime. His dashing good looks? Well, “classically handsome” isn’t a phrase you’d attach to this face. So what’s the secret to his magnetism? Probably it hinges on his ability to seem bitter and ironically detached from life, which has pushed him around, ignored him, beaten him down, made him … average. But Buscemi makes “average” very appealing.

Paramount to understanding the appeal of Alexandre Rockwell’s “In the Soup,” a curious little wisp of a buddy comedy, is understanding that the film relies on Buscemi’s abilities. This is another part that feels tailor-made for Buscemi, or maybe it’s that he has a way of slipping into every part and making them seem tailor-made for him. (He and Frances McDormand have that in common.) So if the odd charms of Steve Buscemi aren’t lost on you, you’ll find yourself rooting for his Adolpho Rollo, an unemployed budding filmmaker with a 500-page script and not enough cash to turn it into a movie. Actually, he doesn’t have any cash — none to pay his ever-feuding landlords (Francesco Messina, Steven Randazzo), none to take out his beautiful neighbor Angelica (Jennifer Beals), whom he keeps promising will be the star of his film. She has learned not to trust men who go on and on about how beautiful she is; that’s how she got stuck with Gregoire (Stanley Tucci, killer-funny in a bit part), the crazy Frenchman she married for a green card. Adolpho assures her some day he’ll be somebody, but why should she believe him? Broke is broke. Divine intervention is required.

Then, in a kind of deus ex machina (the cinema gods have a kooky sense of humor), Adolpho finds Joe (Seymour Cassel), a possible buyer for his script. Joe, a clear foil for Adolpho, is many things: vivacious, suave and possessed of a carpe-diem attitude. He’s also a smooth-talking grifter who associates with some rough characters, including his thuggish brother Skippy (Will Patton), and a midget/gorilla team of drug dealers. Cassel relishes the part and infuses this trickster with enough effervescence to make us wary of his game at the same time we get swept into it. Adolpho seems to know he has no choice but to go along with a guy like Joe. After all, his mother (Ruth Maleczech) likes him.

That’s the thing about Joe: everyone likes him. In motion pictures you can and cannot trust characters everyone likes; you also never quite know what makes them tick. All you know is that they’ll change someone’s life irreversibly and there’s nothing to be done about. So it is with Joe, played with such vigor by Cassel that his possible dirty dealings and obvious mental instability fade into the background. Cassel relishes the part and throws all his energy into it, sometimes dangerously toeing the line to overacting but never crossing it. This leaves Buscemi to do what he does so well: play the straight man, the perpetually sarcastic but perceptive observer who lets life happen to him. The odd couple pairing works reasonably well despite a relative lack of character backstory on both parts. Knowing so little about Adolpho and especially Joe occasionally creates more frustration than the air of mystery Rockwell undoubtedly aims for. There is, however, some merit in a film that ends without boldfacing who every character is, what he has learned and how that knowledge has changed him.

Other parts of “In the Soup” provoke more curiosity than outright enjoyment. Rockwell elects to shoot in black and white, which dates the film even though it’s unclear of the time period and fairly screams “this is art.” The choice is serviceable, but is it necessary? There isn’t much of a storyline and very little action to speak of. As a film, a work of cohesion with a discernible plot and character arcs and action, “In the Soup” falls short. But as a celluloid scrapbook of snapshots — Joe front-and-center, Adolpho hovering at the edges — the film has a retiring charm not unlike the one Buscemi has built his career on.

Grade: B-